Covid 19 Omicron: Borders to fully to reopen to Kiwis this week, spelling beginning of end to MIQ

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After two years of closely-guarded borders marked by heartbreak and sacrifice, Kiwis will soon, once again, be able to freely return home from all over the world.

From midnight Wednesday, Kiwis returning from Australia will no longer need to self-isolate, and from Friday those from all countries will be free to do the same.

That also spells the beginning of the end to the controversial MIQ system, bringing the previous closure forward from March 13, although MIQ will still be used for unvaxxed travellers.

The sweeping changes to border policy also restore the ability of Kiwis at home to freely travel abroad, and be able to return home without needing to secure an expensive slot in the MIQ lottery – one of the first signs of a return to some sense of normality on the international front.

However in stark contrast domestically, New Zealand recorded another nearly 15,000 cases of Omicron in the community on Monday, with 344 people in hospital.

It comes amid revelations of beefed up security at Parliament to prevent the potential risk of the building being stormed by a mob of anti-mandate protesters.

And a group representing the three-week occupation is warning of mass non-compliance with Covid-19 restrictions from today unless its demands that the Government lifts all vaccine mandates is met this morning.

“In short, from 10am … we want all Kiwis to now behave like all Covid-19 Public Health Response Act orders and notices have been revoked,” read a statement on the Freedom and Rights Coalition website.

The group is encouraging all employees who have lost their jobs due to vaccination orders to “make plans and prepare to return to work this week”.

The seven-day average for border cases of Covid-19 at the weekend was 9.4, compared with a seven-day average of around 6700 for cases in the community.

Key Government adviser Professor David Skegg said consequently the “pattern of risk”, once entirely at the border, had now changed “dramatically”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who announced the changes on the first day Kiwis could return from Australia without MIQ, said the Government had moved quickly as this gulf became increasingly apparent.

They had always said when incoming cases had less material impact they would bring forward border reopening dates and remove self-isolation, she said, and had sought and acted on expert advice within a week.

The move has been welcomed by National and Act, who had been ramping up their calls in recent days to end MIQ as Omicron let rip in the community, increasingly questioning the validity of a closed-border approach to keep the virus out.

The Green Party said the border changes would be a “relief” for many, but underscored the need to step-up protections for the most at-risk communities, including making high-quality N95 universally available.

Arrivals will need to produce a negative pre-departure test and then do a RAT test on arrival in New Zealand and then again on day 5/6.

Any positive cases will then have to carry out normal isolation requirements and also follow up with a PCR test to allow genome sequencing. Skegg said this was important to detect any new strains entering the country.

Ardern also announced other non-New Zealanders who were part of Step 2, such as working holiday visa holders and RSE workers, will still be eligible to arrive from March 13, but will not have to isolate on arrival.

Cabinet will shortly consider bringing forward previously signalled dates for remaining groups, including other visa holders from April – such as migrant families living in New Zealand, Australians and visitors from visa waiver countries by July, and all others from October.

“The advice from our experts is that getting over the peak of Omicron should be factored into this timing,” Ardern said.

They were looking at a peak of mid to late March.

Ardern said modelling showed up to 450 cases a day could come into the country once Step 2 was implemented, but this would increase due to removing the isolation requirements.

MIQ would be retained for unvaccinated travellers, and as an option for future variants if they proved more virulent.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa’s Ann-Marie Johnson said removing self-isolation was a “big step forward” but tourism businesses needed more certainty on international visitors.

“The industry’s recovery will not begin until high value holidaymakers can enter New Zealand.

“The sooner we can signal intentions and timelines for reopening both air and maritime borders, the sooner tourism operators can get back to doing what they do best.”

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the move was sensible.

“The infection rates are falling for people travelling into the country. They’re rising markedly within New Zealand, and at a certain point, people will have a higher risk of being infected within New Zealand than they were in that population arriving here,” Baker said.

“That’s related to the fact that Omicron rates are falling in many of those source countries now. We couldn’t have done this a few weeks ago because infection was so common in people arriving here.”

University of Auckland Associate Professor Collin Tukuitonga said he was concerned how the self-isolation changes, alongside increasing case numbers, would impact vulnerable groups.

“The idea of isolation and quarantine is you take out of circulation those people who present the risk of spreading the virus. When you relax those isolation requirements, essentially, you’re allowing everyone to mix and mingle – and the most vulnerable people are yet again going to suffer the consequences.”

Tukuitonga said being “boosted” should be included in the term “fully vaccinated” – something Skegg said they were considering advice for the Government about.

This comes as raw Ministry of Health data shows those who are boosted are about four times less likely to need hospital care than those who are unvaccinated.

“In my mind, fully vaxxed from Omicron must include the booster. Until you have the booster, you’re not fully vaxxed,” Tukuitonga said.

University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank said removing the self-isolation requirement for vaccinated travellers was appropriate as the outbreak had changed rapidly in recent weeks.

“Even two weeks ago, it would have been potentially a risky move to let large numbers of cases come in because that could’ve really accelerated the outbreak,” Plank said.

“Now we are at a stage where we are seeing much larger number of cases and having a few hundred cases at the border does have less of an impact relatively. I wouldn’t expect it to have a significant effect on the peak of the Omicron wave.”

Meanwhile, the protest outside Parliament, largely focused on ending vaccine mandates and passes, has entered its fourth week.

Parliament had taken extra security measures as a result, and while Parliament had continued to operate safely Ardern said she acknowledged some people had been abused for things like not wearing masks.

The protest was now part of the outbreak – at least 17 cases now and some in hospital – and Ardern said it was “Covid camp” and advised nobody go near it.

– additional reporting by Julia Gabel

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